May 13, 2020

Revealing Craft and Nature: An Interview with Brian Korte, FAIA

Brian Korte FAIA, a Principal at Clayton Korte, has been inducted to the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows. Only three percent of all AIA members have been recognized with the honor, which acknowledges personal achievements and architectural excellence and those architects that have made a significant contribution to architecture and society on a national level. Only the AIA Gold Medal is a higher honor.

Josh Nieves, a project manager and designer with Clayton Korte, recently interviewed Brian to learn more about how he became an architect and to dig deeper into his career and to learn what motivates him. Portrait by Josh Huskin. 

Josh:  Awards are always rare, but more often than not they are for specific projects rather than a body of work and contributions to the profession.  What are your thoughts on receiving this recognition?

Brian:  Considering the caliber of men and women that make up the College of Fellows, it is an immense honor to be recognized by my colleagues and peers and to become part of such a distinguished group, past and present. In some ways, being elevated gives meaning to the countless hours and effort I’ve spent working on my craft…it is humbling to be recognized in a profession defined by constant collaboration.  The honor truly belongs to all of those people that I have had the good fortune to collaborate with, including my clients, my colleagues, and the thousands of skilled craftspeople who make architecture a reality.

Josh: What set you on the path to becoming an architect?

Brian: My mom was very much into ceramics when I was growing up, and my dad was always building cabinets or tinkering on the houses we lived in, so, I saw my parents using their hands and injecting craft into our daily lives. As the youngest of six (with four older brothers), I developed an early appreciation for craft and detail by observing them build hyper-detailed WW2-era model airplanes and classic cars.  As I got older, I built them myself and became quite good at it. So, combining that with an appreciation for artistic expression and my enjoyment for drawing (which led to drafting) is most likely of what led me to architecture.  It also provided the bridge for how I developed a love for making things with wood- I’ve always had some form of wood shop since college. I still have this dream of having an undisturbed space in my house where I can work on a variety of scale model projects. I was only like nine or ten at the time when Star Wars came out, but I am super envious of the Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) visual effects artists who built all the incredible scale model ships for the original movie trilogy. Now that would be a dream job! I think I wanted to be an artist at heart, I still kind of do, and am really inspired by the personal exploration that comes with making things with your own hands.

Josh: Did you save any of these airplane models from your childhood?

Brian: Ha! No, like most of my brother’s models, most of mine met their demise through explosions courtesy of firecrackers.  I treat models a little differently now. I have a secret stash of “to-be-completed” Star Wars X-Wings that will make it to a display shelf in our home office someday.

Josh: How has your work evolved throughout your career?

Brian: I see a consistency over time and between the projects in how they were approached, in how the natural environment or urban context shapes each design, and how materiality imbues each with a simple timelessness and layered user experience. That said, I also feel that the work has evolved considerably with respect to advanced sustainable design knowledge, higher performing building materials that reduce waste and use less energy, and integrated renewable energy systems that even create their own.

Josh: What does your typical day look like?

Brian:  Like most firms we are currently working in a “safe at home” remote office setup due to the coronavirus pandemic, but under normal conditions I look forward to going into the office every day. I have the benefit of working with a talented bunch of architects who make the work enjoyable and bring a lot of fun to the studio. Typical days include reviewing design progress on projects, responding to an avalanche of email correspondence related to projects, writing for marketing or business development efforts, and being on the phone for at least half the day with contractors and consultants and/or clients. If I’m lucky, I’ll have time to sketch conceptual ideas or details, which would easily make it a great day. I usually travel at least once a month to projects outside of Texas, connecting with clients and consultants and meeting with the craftspeople that make our ideas a reality.  At least once a week I feel like I have the best job in the entire world; but I still think about those ILM model builders.

Josh: Though you are based in Texas, I know you have worked on a number of commissions outside of the state. What have you learned from working in various places and how has that affected your work in general?

Brian: I grew up in San Antonio and have lived in Texas for most of my life. I have been fortunate to work on amazing projects around the country for most of my career. Working in other states and different climates requires you to understand what makes a place unique, including distinct environmental conditions, as well as local cultural and economic factors. Each project becomes a way to learn from craftspeople who have expertise with their local building material preferences and practices…continually exposing me (and the firm) to new ways to think about the environment and approaches to design, whether in Texas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, Virginia, or even Nova Scotia. All have distinct climates which inform and inspire.

Working in California, for example, requires the most patience due to a long entitlements and regulatory approval process, but the combination of amazing sites and clients make these permitting hurdles worthwhile. Regardless of location, the most rewarding aspect to working in varying climates—beyond the clients—is being able leverage different construction techniques and applicable building science so that projects are not only artful and practical, but also as high-performing as they can be.

Josh: With local factors such as the environment and local materials taking such a prominent role in design, what is your process in understanding these conditions?

Brian:  The environment informs the basis of our design process, whether it is the natural environment or an urban context.  Studying local climate, history and local building traditions arms us with the necessary data to begin to think creatively.  Careful selection of locally-sourced, salvaged or reclaimed materials, or even buildings, plays a big part in how we design and build. Many times, we try to approach a project thinking as a farmer might have, using what materials they had nearby or readily available, and where practicality and longevity drive design decisions.

Josh: Your work has an honest and pragmatic aesthetic which is notable in the treatment of materials and the craft of detailing.  How much does the design process and collaboration with fabricators during construction influence the way you design?

Brian: Thanks! I do try to bring a straightforward approach to my work, uniquely informed by circumstance, process, and ultimately the act of building itself, where each material is authentic and carefully chosen and engineered for the job it will perform. Rich, well-crafted materials are the essence of each structure, so how they come together provides focus in my (our) work. George Nakashima, and the book The Soul of a Tree, has influenced me and the notion of how I relate to craftsmanship, both within the architectural process and perhaps more so in my passion for woodworking. He considered re-using materials­— whether book matched slabs cut from a felled tree or site-fired bricks pulled from an aging building— to be moral acts of renewal and respect. This idea has resonated with me, especially as we work on adaptive reuse projects. Giving a felled tree, or a venerable old building, a chance at a new life is quite meaningful. Nakashima also valued the integration of designer and producer, which is something that I have learned is an essential aspect of reaching authenticity in the work since these materials and how they were made, or carefully cut and assembled, serve as a daily reminder of the craftsperson’s hand, or perhaps more subtly a direct connection to our natural environment.

This collaboration with artisans and fabricators, like my late friend Max Patino (aka Cactus Max) who I had collaborated with closely on a lot of great projects, has been instrumental in allowing me to expand my ability to listen to alternative approaches to making, to learn as the student. These talented craftspeople bring a deep material and fabrication knowledge to the realization of whatever it is, whether a custom sink, a chimney cap, or a leather-wrapped door handle: and the project becomes richer for it.  The process of learning the limitations of materials, realistic tolerances for their fabrication, and how they can contribute to a project come from working alongside the trades, seeing how things are made, and a lot of listening.

My friend Canan Yetmen, a writer in Austin that once wrote a nice feature in Texas Architect magazine about me. She noted that “craft, after all, is the soul of architecture. It is the touch of the hand, the unshakable human quality that Max Levy FAIA says adds charisma to a project and enriches the work”. She also referenced Nakashima, described this as taking pride “not only in the act of producing a better product, but in the sheer joy of doing or becoming”.  These ideas are extremely important to me.

Josh: Can you discuss what it has been like to work on projects at different stages, such as designing, detailing, and managing? Is there a role or certain type of project you enjoy most?

Brian: Each project is unique. Working on each phase from the start through its completion of construction and managing that entire process, is essential for achieving the expectations I set for our work. Conceptual design is pretty exciting because it’s where creative ideas are born, and design energy can quickly become contagious. Some ideas come rather quickly while others take time to emerge through deeper exploration and study.  It’s also where complicated program elements begin to be puzzled together into a thoughtful solution. Detailing will always be an important part of the process for me since it is the backbone of my work, and, as Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details.”  The construction phase is the most rewarding of all as it’s where the team’s hard work comes together to realize the vision.  My role is being able to lead a group of talented colleagues and help them realize their design ideas. This collaboration is the most rewarding aspect of my career.

I tend to enjoy projects with patient clients who understand that good design takes time and that it doesn’t truly stop until they occupy and make the building their own. And, where they participate in the creation of buildings that exist within the convergence of distilled design, regional ecology, resiliency and ingenuity, and that take a step back and let the natural landscape be the star of the show.  Vineyard projects are great examples of this. Challenging adaptive reuse projects such as Armstrong Oil and Gas (Denver, Colorado) and Epoch Tasting Room (Templeton, California)- both for the same client- have also been meaningful, because they leverage the past for the future and enable these existing structures, or portions of structures, to live on, contributing their grit and richness to the project and to the environment in which they sit.

Josh: Can you share some details about a few of your recent or notable past projects that you have found most interesting?

Brian: Back in 1997, I worked on a set of polo pony barns in San Saba, Texas, with John Grable, FAIA, that were built from very spartan and utilitarian materials: salvaged oil field drill stem pipe, corrugated metal, and concrete. Originally there was only a single barn, which was called the Air Barn, since it was designed to catch and funnel prevailing breezes to ventilate the horse stalls. At the bargain price of $29/square foot, the client decided to add a second barn staggered beside it, and the Air Barns were born. Quoting a character S.R. Hadden from the 1997 movie Contact, “…why build one when you can have two at twice the price.”  Zooming forward to 2017-2018, I completed another barn, this one for a repeat client with whom I’ve now done five projects with (Saxum Winery was finished in 2016). The Saxum Vineyard Equipment Barn, located in Paso Robles, California, is a simple, yet elegant open air structure made from the same salvaged drill stem pipe, but with a primary objective to shoulder a photovoltaic glass roof that can harness enough solar power to take the adjacent winery off of the energy grid. It has been fun to see how a project from twenty years earlier can inspire and shepherd an idea, but with the additional layer of cutting-edge technology to make a more high-performing structure.

Air Barns, San Saba, TX. Circa 1997. © Brian KorteSaxum Vineyard Equipment Barn, Paso Robles, CA. © Casey DunnSVEB. © Casey Dunn

The offices for Armstrong Oil and Gas, an adaptive reuse of an 1800s industrial machine shop in Denver, Colorado was a perfect storm, of sorts, that checked all the boxes for what an architect would want in a project: a great client that simply asked for the “coolest office in Denver” (I am thrilled to say I am still working with this client today…16 years and counting), and a wonderful turn-of-the-century industrial building with great “bones” and a rich history having once even been occupied as a brothel before it’s life as a machine shop. It was an especially rewarding process, being able to collaborate with a great local architect (Steve George, who is one of my best friends today) and to leverage the skills of some incredible metal fabricators and cabinetmakers to provide a platform that aligned everything that I find enjoyable in making a complicated project come to life. I also spent seven months making over forty pieces of custom furniture from steel plate and salvaged Douglas fir roof beams from the selective building demolition, as well as an art piece composed of salv­­aged electrical machine disconnects. The client stated after seeing the installation that it is “worthy of hanging in the MoMa.”  Needless to say, I love that compliment. This project “hit for the cycle” in terms of design recognition, including winning a prestigious AIA Institute Honor Award for Interior Architecture in 2011.

Other notable past projects include SK Ranch, a 4-building modern villa in the Texas Hill Country with acclaimed designer Sara Story, and Saxum Winery and Epoch Winery and Tasting Room. Both in central California, each of them has helped cultivate long-term friendships and a pipeline of high-caliber work that we have on the boards today.

We currently, we have a number of great projects in design and under construction, including several wineries in California and Texas, a couple of vineyard barns, and custom residences in California, Hawaii, and Texas. A couple of particularly interesting and very different projects, are Rancho Carrizo and Hill Country Wine Cave.  Rancho Carrizo, concepted around the idea of prospect, is a ranch house south of downtown San Antonio that is designed as a “stairway to the treetops”. The primary living areas of the house are elevated above the dense surrounding woods giving the family access to an abundance of air and natural light and uninterrupted distant vistas.  The Wine Cave, located north of San Antonio in the Texas Hill Country, is a stealth private wine cellar and entertaining space that is completely embedded into a limestone hillside, providing a destination with very low visual impact on its natural environment while leveraging the subterranean temperature and humidity of the earth.

Working in a wide range of environments is a wonderful opportunity. Each project becomes an exploration of connecting the client’s goals and dreams into something that is not only artful and practical, but that also provides meaning and experiential value to their families for generations.

Josh: What inspires you, and how do you maintain and focus that inspiration into the work you do?

Brian: I get a great deal of inspiration from the creativity of artists, as well as wonderful landscapes and the challenge of imagining thoughtful structures that quietly emerge from within it (and a personal fear of making sure that we do not screw it up).  Local vernacular buildings, history, and the process of making also catch my attention.  I strive to stay fresh, building on ideas and continuing to learn from the last project, so that I can continue to explore new ways of thinking.

David Lake used to pose a question to us that his former mentor, O’Neil Ford, asked his design staff back in the late 70’s—“Sure it’s beautiful, but what will it look like in two hundred years as a ruin?” I still think about this challenge for every project I undertake.  The Epoch Tasting Room in Templeton, California, was a ruin to begin with. The existing York Mountain Winery, circa 1907, was condemned and red-tagged after the 2003 San Simeon earthquake (6.6 magnitude). Reimagining this as Epoch’s new Tasting Room required a full reconstruction using salvaged original materials from selective demolition and taking great care to repair the original stone winery and preserve the “bones” of the building. A delicate procedure due to one hundred years of soil pressures, water infiltration, and seismic deformation, the existing building was carefully dismantled, with its usable materials catalogued, stored and re-purposed to save the character of site fired clay brick, heavy timber framing and to shore and re-point the un-reinforced stone walls of the original cellar. It is quite a cycle for a building to transform over its life, being built and modified by farmers to suit their needs. A full century later, eroded and crumbled by the elements and the earth’s pressure, left something most would have just pushed over and swept away to build anew. Reconstructing and saving, extending its life, but in a new way, was a great undertaking that the client embraced feeling as they are the new stewards of its history. I will not be around to see what it looks like in another century, but I have contemplated how it might present itself again down the line and feel good about it.

I am quite proud of the body of work to this point, but what pushes me forward is looking toward current projects, as well as those that have yet to come (“Act II” if you will), and how the work and project types might evolve over the next twenty plus years.

Josh: You have mentioned Nakashima a few times. I am curious to know, who else would be part of your architectural “dream team”, your superheroes?

Brian: Oh man, this is a great question! I have never thought of it this way, but I do have other architects and artists that I consider legends, or that have inspired me over the years or even still today.  A few that come to mind would be Carlo Scarpa, Louis Kahn, Peter Zumthor, Glenn Murcutt, Piet Boon, Kerry Hill, Geoffrey Bawa, or artists Andy Goldsworthy or Richard Serra. I kind of feel like I would want to be a superhero that had the ability to absorb these other supers’ powers…I guess that would make me akin to “Rogue” from Marvel’s “X-Men”.

While I worked with him for 17 years and was his partner for a few years, I still consider David Lake— who coincidentally wrote my AIA Fellowship sponsor letter— to be my mentor and a legend in his own right. Having worked closely together for nearly two decades there is also some deep “superhero” influence there for sure. David and I did some great work together, mostly in California and Idaho, and I learned so much from him. Most importantly through observation. He showed me how to approach a client from different perspectives. We had a good synergy and he trusted me from the onset, which instilled great confidence in my abilities as an architect and provided the freedom to develop my own design process to cultivate personal relationships with our clients. Even though he is a relentless designer and quite a deep thinker, he also kept things really loose and added a lot of fun to the process for me, which is something that I really value and try to share with the younger colleagues I work with today.  I miss that aspect of our relationship, and the nickname he gave me “Murphy’s Law”.  If you are not having fun doing what you love, then you are doing something wrong!

Josh: Your relationship with David is incredibly inspiring. It demonstrates how important having a mentor is to one’s development. I also had the great pleasure of working with David and value my experiences. But you have also worked in a few other office settings.  How has your experience working at different offices and even as a sole proprietor influenced you?

Brian: Having worked in a small three to four person firm after grad school, then at the opposite end of the spectrum in a large 75+ person office for almost two decades, and now having a mid-sized firm with offices in different cities, has given me a wide perspective about the functional side of a design firm.  Scaling business practices, human resources, etc. can generally be about the same in each setting. However, the approach to design and studio intensity varies greatly. The best conditions exist where design leadership flows to all team members and cultivates a collaborative environment. Other than when I was solo for a couple of years, my takeaway is that the essence of an office, no matter its scale or success, is still all about the people and how well they fit together professionally and culturally.  Curating the right team for the type of work you want to do is essential.  To quote Michael Scott from The Office, “the most important thing in business is people.”

Josh: How much has your experience and navigating the constant advancements in the field shaped the way you work?

Brian: I hope the role that true collaboration with craftspeople plays in our work won’t disappear. I’m optimistic that as we continue along the path toward the integration of design and fabrication there will be room for happenstance and the value of imperfection. I struggle with the impersonal aspect of fabrication leaving an artisan’s hand. I am excited to see how this develops over the next 20+ years of our practice.

Josh: The AIA only elevates those who have made a significant contribution to the profession and society and exemplify architectural excellence.  What would you consider to be your most significant contribution to the profession?

Brian: I have been fortunate to work in a lot of different locations up to this point in my career, and with some amazing people along the way. Realizing that I have generated what peers call the “ripple effect”, where a body of work has been recognized by design juries and has resonated with others outside of my region, has been very satisfying. It’s really about sharing the successes with the who played a big part in the work.

But aside from the stable of projects I have been fortunate to be part of, I take great pride in my part mentoring the next generation of leaders which includes some of the best talent with whom I have ever worked. I like to think that passing along my knowledge to others is my biggest contribution since it has an even greater ripple effect. I can imagine sitting somewhere with a view, sipping a great glass of a California red (produced by one of the wineries we have worked with), and proudly reading about their accomplishments. That day will come sooner than you think.

Josh: How do you see architecture changing in the next 10 years?

Brian: Perhaps the most important factor impacting the change of the profession and how we design, is the digital world and how well we as architects are able to influence this in construction. Our continually changing climate, and the availability of building resources and skilled labor, will also be big influencers.

Josh: What is your advice to students and young architects as they enter the profession?

Brian: The biggest challenge that I see young architects dealing with, one that they cannot possibly expect coming out of design school and jumping into an active office environment, is that projects are most often non-linear. They start and stop quite often, and the environment of design can be unpredictable. Being mentally prepared for that expectation will help curb frustrations after working long hours toward deadlines and then having to wait while things go on hold. Learning how to take advantage of the time in between is what is valuable, so be ready, keep learning, and taking chances. Another valuable skill to develop is being malleable, not only to circumstances like these, but adapting and growing with the needs of a firm that evolve over time, continually looking for opportunities to grow personally and professionally. It takes talent, but it also requires a great deal of emotional intelligence to be an effective architect.